Twenty years after his groundbreaking “Roger & Me,” documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore returns to some of the same themes with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” about the financial meltdown and what it shows about the failures of our financial and political systems. Before “Roger & Me,” about the shut-down of General Motors operations in Flint and other parts of Michigan, documentaries tended to be balanced, straight-forward, and dull, the kind of thing we’d snooze through in Social Studies class. But Moore’s movies are brash, confrontational, opinionated, and fearless. He has taken on guns, insurance companies, and the war in Iraq. Twenty years ago, he predicted General Motors would fail. He predicted that we would find no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that health care would become a central political and economic issue. And now he takes on the financial meltdown, and once again he is naming names and pointing fingers.
Like Balzac, Moore believes that behind every great fortune is a crime. And with one percent of the population having more money than the lower 95 percent put together, that feels like a crime, and a very foolish one, because there is not enough money even in that one percent to make up for the collapse of the entire society. Moore’s most telling argument is about the extinguishing of the middle class, and the consequences of losing the crucial foundation of not just our economy but our culture.
Once again, Moore gives us a collage of archival footage, stories of individual heartbreak, and more stories of institutional corruption and callousness. If it is not really a coherent, linear explanation of what went wrong. For that, see I.O.U.S.A. and “American Casino” and listen to the superb series of podcasts from Planet Money. Moore’s facts are about one small group of trees in a very large forest. But his film is a howl of protest, sturdily founded in a clearly authentic moral outrage. In a chilling parallel to “Roger & Me,” there are scenes of foreclosures and evictions that would make a pre-ghosts Scrooge burst into tears. Moore tells us that since that first film, the devastation of his home town of Flint has spread throughout the country. And then, in a goosebump-inducing revelation, we see that foreclosure letters are coming from nowhere else but Flint, in a pathetic and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find some sustaining enterprise to keep its economy alive.
Moore also uncovers a shocking and apparently pervasive piece of financial engineering. Major companies took out millions of dollars of what they called “dead peasant” insurance policies on their employees without telling them. That means that if these employees died, the companies collected huge life insurance payments. It is one thing to have “key man” policies on the top executives. But companies like WalMart and Ameritech took out policies on the lowest-level employees, especially young, healthy ones, in the hopes that they would outsmart the actuarial tables and make a profit on the death of their employees. Moore even finds a memo apologizing that the death rate was only 72 percent, so the profits were less than anticipated. But, it goes on to say, let’s look on the bright side — there were three suicides and that kept our numbers from being even worse!
Moore devotes too much time on some tangential stories like the privatization of juvenile detention in Wilkes-Barre that led to a kickback scandal. As horrifying as the story is, he is unable to make a compelling case that this kind of corruption is the inevitable consequence of capitalism. Indeed, the same kind of kickbacks have been known to occur in government settings. His portrayal of the bailout as completely driven by unjustified fear is overstated and his recommendation that we all respond by breaking the law is silly and irresponsible.
But when he focuses on the stories of the people most affected by the economic meltdown, he knows how to make us feel their struggles without impinging their dignity. He shows us laid-off workers staging a sit-in to demand their back pay and a family living in a truck who, with a Capra-esque assist from their community, become squatters in what once was their home. Most wrenching is the story of a farm family from Peoria, Illinois, evicted from their home of four decades. When I spoke to Moore at the Washington, D.C. premiere this week, he said he had hired a lawyer at his own expense to get their home back. Moore is frank about grounding his positions in religious faith, taking on those who say that exploitative capitalism is consistent with God’s laws. He not only dubs an old movie to have Jesus endorsing bank deregulation, he consults with the priest who married him and other clergy to talk about whether our current system is immoral, even sinful.
Moore proves to be an able investigative reporter and an archivist, retrieving an old television commercial from Countrywide, the mortgage company at the heart of the subprime crisis, putting it in the context of the payoffs Countrywide gave to legislators and regulators through favorable VIP mortgages and fee waivers, even paperwork waivers, to keep them from paying too much attention to what was going on. And he uncovers some long-lost footage of Franklin Roosevelt, who was more successful in implementing the fundamental rights he fought for in the countries the US helped to rebuild after the war, including our former enemies, than he was at home.
The movie is rated R because of three bad words, or, rather, the same bad word three times. Trust me, teenagers already know this word. And this is a movie they should see, to begin their investigation of what has happened and to help them resolve to make sure it can never happen again. Moore’s film makes no pretense of being balanced, but with the Chamber of Commerce spending $100 million to defeat any effort at regulatory reform under the phony banner of “economic freedom,” in my mind a bigger abuse than the bailout (which was a loan and is already significantly repaid), it helps balance the debate by reminding us what that definition of freedom has brought us.
Four big movies are opening this week. There’s a comic clash of cultures “Our Family Wedding” when “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrara and “House of Payne’s” Lance Gross fall in love. “Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson and “Lost’s” Emilie de Ravin play characters who are both dealing with tragic loss who try to find solace in each other in “Remember Me.” “She’s Out of My League” is an outrageously raunchy comedy with Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder”) as an airport security guy who falls for a dazzling girl (Alice Eve) and finds his biggest obstacle is his own insecurity (closely followed by learning to ignore the terrible advice of his friends). And in “The Green Zone,” Matt Damon reunites with Paul Greengrass, the director of the last two Bourne movies, for the fact-based story of an American officer who finds he cannot trust his intel about weapons of mass destruction and has to find out for himself.
In honor of “The Hurt Locker’s” Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director last night, and International Women’s Day, here’s a list of pioneering women movie directors.
1. Penny Marshall, who started as an actress (“Laverne and Shirley”), went on to direct films that included “Awakenings,” “Big,” and “A League of Their Own.”
2. Amy Heckerling is the director of “Clueless” and the neglected gem “I Could Never Be Your Woman.”
3. Betty Thomas also started as an actress (“Hill Street Blues”) and went on to direct “The Brady Bunch” and “28 Days.”
4. Nora Ephron, the daughter of successful screenwriters, began as a writer and then went on to direct films like “Julie & Julia,” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
5. Gurinder Chadha directed the international hit “Bend it Like Beckham” as well as “What’s Cooking” and “Bride and Prejudice.”
6. Nancy Meyers also began as a writer and has gone on to direct some of the most successful movies of the last 10 years including “It’s Complicated,” “The Holiday,” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”
7. Penelope Speeris made a successful documentary about a topic considered very male — punk music — in “The Decline of Western Civilization.” That led to her directing the wildly successful “Wayne’s World.”
8. Kasi Lemmons is another actress turned director with “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine,” starring Samuel L. Jackson.
9. Mabel Normand was one of the most gifted comic actors of the silent era and one of the first female film directors. She often worked with Charlie Chaplin.
10. Mira Nair directed “Monsoon Wedding” and the recent biopic “Amelia,” starring Hillary Swank.
Sandra Bullock certainly gets the good sport award for her gracious acceptance of the worst actress Razzie for her performance in All About Steve. She came out on stage with a wagon full of DVDs for everyone. If she wins tonight, that will make her the first person to win both an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year.
I really hated the movie, but I recognized that she had good intentions and a good idea and her performance was not the problem. And Bradley Cooper (her co-awardee for worst couple) was certainly blameless. The Razzie should go to the screenwriter. I also thought the Jonas Brothers’ award was mean-spirited. They weren’t acting; it was a documentary. But I completely support the Razzie for Land of the Lost.
Worst Picture of 2009:
Worst Actress of 2009:
Worst Actor(s) of 2009:
All Three Jonas Brothers
Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience
Worst Screen Couple:
Sandra Bullock & Bradley Cooper
Worst Supporting Actress:
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Worst Supporting Actor:
Billy Ray Cyrus
Hannah Montana: The Movie
Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off or Sequel
On a happier note, the Spirit Awards for independent films were given out on Friday night. Eddie Izzard was surprisingly disappointing as the host and Ben Stiller ruined his segment with a trashy stunt, but the laid-back ceremony continues to have the best sense of passion and community of any of the award shows. “Precious” was the big winner with awards for leading and supporting actresses, best director, and best picture. All of their acceptance speeches were sensational. I especially loved seeing the documentary award go to Anvil, who also got a chance to perform with a great introduction from Dave Grohl. Here are the very worthy winners:
Best Film: Precious
Best Director: Lee Daniels, Precious
Best Actress: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious
Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Best Documentary: Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Best Foreign film: An Education
Best Debut film: Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart
Best First screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Best Screenplay: Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, A Serious Man
John Cassavetes Award: Lynn Shelton, Humpday
Robert Altman Award: A Serious Man